Well, the 2020 monsoons are here and we are still in lockdown. The first rain made me wonder what was I doing when I experienced my first showers in 2019. And immediately my heart was filled with joy and delight because I was with some wonderful people in the land of seven sisters.
The land of the seven sisters is always alluring; it is like a mystical place hidden away from the rest of India. Probably a place where we can have our own version of GOT (The white walkers could be the Chinese).
No matter what time of the year, going for a trip to North East is always exciting. There is something about the unexplored terrain, culture and people along with the general sense of unexpectedness. This time was no different besides the fact that I was travelling with 10 boys and girls for 12 days to Tawang – A fabulous hilly destination surrounded by glacial lakes in and around the valley with crystal clear blue waters. Being situated at 10,000 feet above sea level it is naturally surrounded by magnificent mountains and makes it a perfect destination for nature lovers.
In this trip the youngest one was born in the year India got freedom and the senior-most in 1934, aptly the group was named ‘Young at Heart’ (YAH).
Out of the 10 YAH members two were flying with me from Mumbai to Guwahati while the rest was coming from Pune. Our flights were landing within a gap of half hours. Flight from Mumbai reached first and as we were entering Guwahati, the pilot announced the temperature outside is 28 degrees and as soon as we landed we were greeted by the first rains and the temperature fell to 18 degrees. We all deplaned and dashed to the aerodrome before we could get drenched. Somehow we managed to be dry but our bags couldn’t, on the conveyer belt we could hear almost everyone saying ‘Ohh, my how could they do this”, looking at their rain-soaked bags. Within the next half hour, the remaining team members arrived, and we heard the same sounds at the conveyer belt. I always consider rain as a good omen, after all, it was the first rain for all of us this season.
As soon as we got out of the airport we all were welcomed by our local team head ‘Chandra’ with ‘gamcha’, a traditional Assamese style welcome.
Quickly we shoved our bags into the three Innova’s not in any particular order and got into the cars to avoid getting wet. I must admit the unexpected rains dampened the spirits of the YAH a bit but as soon as they saw Bramahaputra they were back in full ‘Josh’ out came the cameras and struggle to take pictures from a running car.
On our way we halted for lunch at a local Dhaba, it was the first meal of the trip and all were anxious to know how it would be, even I was because these were YAH who had seen a lot. But as soon as the took the first bit I could see a slight nod of approval in their head followed by wow, this is very nice.
Later during the journey discussion was tailored around how the fish was cooked and how the bhaji was made, etc.
Reaching Tawang takes 2 days, our first halt was in Nameri Forest. We had managed to get a stay in the middle of the forest, unfortunately, by the time we arrived there it was dark and nothing much could be seen, on top of that it was still raining and all were tired since they were up since 3 am to catch the flight. We had a quick dinner and hit the bed.
The next day I woke up to a very distinct sound of ‘Hornbill’ bird a magnificent bird found in the North East of India, in fact, there is a festival named in Nagaland after this bird ‘The Hornbill Festival’. Of course, there were other birds too who were busy waking us up with their chirps, when the YAH came out of the tent they were in complete love with that place. They were contemplating extending the stay there, but we had to reach Tawang.
I took them for a morning walk to the nearby river, where they could see clouds playing hide-and-seek with the waters between the mountains. After some photography and walks, we came back to our campsite, had a quick breakfast and moved on to the next destination, Dirang.
This day the sky was clear we could see the beautiful scenery all around us. Within sometime we reached Arunachal Border, where we were asked to produce our ILP (Inner Line Permit). Arunachal being a protected area even we Indians need ILP to enter this state.
Our first stop on the way was the famous Orchid gardens, well, to be frank, we did not see much Orchids and the caretaker was upset with the way government was ignoring the beautiful garden. However, very defensively he did mention that the season is yet to come and we have arrived early. The road to Dirang was filled with greenery, occasional waterfalls and beautiful weather. On the way, we stopped in a small town with barely 3 shops to have lunch. The food was cooked on the wood fire in a traditional style kitchen. The food seems to have taken the flavour of the wood making it so unique. No wonder we couldn’t stop eating. I can still feel the taste of the food in my mouth.
Late evening we reached Dirang, even though it was just 6.10 pm it was pretty dark because Sunrise happens at 4:30 am in Arunachal; this is the place where India gets its first ray of the sun. We stayed the night in Awoo resort surrounded by nature. Our YAH felt the staff was very good and welcoming. Later in the night, some boys got together to reminisce their good old days over a bottle of scotch.
Since it was dark the previous night we couldn’t see much, but when we woke up we felt that heaven blessed us dearly. We were perched on top of the mountain and the Dirang valley laid below like a beautiful motif on a carpet, with its crystal clear river Kameng passing through the village, playing with its banks as the people were stepping out to catch the fish.
As you lift your eyes you see the snow-clad mountains in the distance and the leaves of the trees dancing to the tune of the wind. The breeze gives you a chill and you want to find a warm place, but the view keeps you hypnotised. Such is the magic of Dirang.
We had our breakfast with the view of the snow-clad mountains and soon we had to make our way to Tawang. Before heading to Tawang we had to explore one more place in Dirang and that was the hidden Sangti Valley. It is approximately 12 KM outside Dirang, and not many people go there. It is like a well-kept secret or a place that a travel agent won’t tell you because it is a detour while going to Tawang. Trust me very soon it will be one of the so-called ‘Must visit places’.
While most of the YAH members decided to take a small walk some of them dared to go into the water. The meticulously removed their shoes, socks and pulled up their pants and jumped into the freezing water. I was amazed by the child-like enthusiasm they have even at the age of 85. After spending a good hour admiring the place and wondering if we could spend one more day here, reluctantly we went on with our onward journey.
Next stop was the hot springs in Dirang, I personally do not recommend it because it is not well maintained, locals go there and throw all the rubbish along with the alcohol bottles. However, there are families who stop there and prefer to take a bath in the water. We found one such family. If proper maintenance is done then this place will be worth it.
Before reaching the gateway of Tawang, we all stopped at a small town to have lunch. One important thing my YAH group taught me was no matter what one should eat on time to be healthy and fit. We had to find places on the way by 1 pm so that we all can have some good food for our onward journey. This time we tried some local momos which were simply awesome. I am not sure what makes the food taste so good in this region, is it the way they prepare or the weather. Next to the lunch place, we had a shop that sold local oranges. It was one of the sweetest tasting oranges that I have had in a long-time.
As we made our way to Sela Pass, the gateway of Tawan Valley, in the base of the mountain we were first greeted with small snowballs, it felt like somebody was throwing the confetti which was hitting the glass of the car. As we started going up the mountain the snowfall kept increasing and very soon we were in thick snow. Sela Pass is at an altitude of 14000 feet above the sea level, and it is amongst the high-altitude motorable passes, around the world. There was snow, snow and more snow all around us. Then there was the Sela Lake (or Paradise Lake because of its beauty) which was frozen and the sun rays in the distance were making the snow glow. Normally in April, the region doesn’t get that amount of snow but due to some weather changes, we had a lot more snow than expected. The snowfall continued to Jaswant Ghar, where a war memorial is created to honour the Legendary Jaswant Singh who fought the Chinese soldiers single-handed. The main attraction for our YAH was the shopping centre near Jaswant Ghar, here army sells some winter clothes and shoes. They also server basic snacks like idli, vada, dosa which are rare in Arunachal Pradesh along with free tea. The girls spent a lot of time in deciding which type of gloves they need and what colour sweater will suit them the best. One thing is for sure no matter what age, when it comes to shopping girls will never change. In this whole shopping, and food fiasco nobody went to see the war memorial and promised to see it on the way back.
Then the next halt was the Jung Fall also know as the Nuranang Falls. The fall is huge and beautiful, we were slightly pressed for time so we halted a bit away from the fall and took some interesting pictures. Later in the evening, we checked into the famous Yangzom hotel. The girl who met us at the reception was Yangzom, her father had named the hotel on her name. It is a nice and cosy place to stay. The morning view from this hotel is spectacular, you can see mountains with snow all around you.
Following morning we all went to see the Tawang Monastery and were lucky to catch the prayer session. The very fact that Buddhism is a loving and accepting religion was seen during the prayer sessions. All the tourist were happily clicking pictures and making videos but the monks were not bothered with it and they were focusing on their prayers.
The giant Buddha statue towers over the entire town of Tawang. A visit to the local market was on the cards so it had to be done followed by lunch at Taste of Tawang. The food is nice, simple and reasonable. Post lunch we visited the war memorial built-in memory of soldiers of the Indian Army who gave up their life in the 1962 Indo-Sino War. Located on a slope just before reaching the main town, the Tawang War Memorial is open to the public. The 40 ft structure was built by the Indian Army and was blessed by the Dalai Lama in 1997.
Locals call this place Namgyal Chortan. We wanted to see the sound and light show but we were told to come at 6 pm. So reluctantly we went to our hotel took some rest and turned up at 5 pm to our surprise the Army man who was in charge of the ticket said the first show is full, we actually did not believe him and asked him how many people it takes to make it a houseful. He replied 108, wow that’s very specific and saying so he pointed to the door behind which all 108 were seated. YAH group was heartbroken, for a moment I thought they are going to howl, our saving grace was when the army man said the second show is at 6.30 and guaranteed us a ticket for that. We were saying to ourselves obviously he can guarantee because there is nobody here besides us.
Within a few minutes, we were asked to go and sit in another room so that we could be protected from the harsh winter. As soon as we opened the door we saw a room full of people, we looked at each other with an embarrassed smile and took our seats. The army man came and said he will call all of us when the show is about to start, but just before 6.30 three people walked out of the room towards the screening room, and all of us as if on cue got up and started running behind them. I wonder why we were doing this, the total number of people in the room were not more than 50 and we had 108 seating capacity, I think it is that ‘Indian’ thing to do.
The show lasted for around half-hour, it touched on the history of Tawang, places to see and most importantly the Indo-china war. The show was very touching at various levels. I surely recommend this show if you are in that region.
Our main aim was to go to Bumla Pass the next day, however, the army was not allowing anyone in that region for the past two days due to heavy snow, and in spite of all our attempts and crossing fingers, we too did not get the permission. So the following day we changed our plan and went to the Tara Devi temple in Lumla Tawang. On the way, we stopped at the waterfall and a spot where the entire valley could be seen.
Arunachal government is focusing on creating new tourist destination across Arunachal. Work has stared in that region and the villagers are very happy about it. Why not more tourist means more income for them. From Tara Devi temple we could see the house in Bhutan, I am not sure why were we so excited about it, given the fact that all of us had been to Bhutan earlier. But still, I guess the rare opportunity to see houses in another country from our country makes it exciting.
We made a final attempt to reach Madhuri and PTSO lake which are on the way to Bumla Pass, but unfortunately, the weather conditions did not allow us, the evening was spent in hotel chitchatting about the next day’s plans and hoping weather would be kind on us and let us enjoy the Sela Pass and its lake on the way back.
The next morning was filled with excitement we were making our way back to Sela Pass, and on the way, we stopped at the famous Paradise lake. This is where the water freezes and it forms a layer of snow. We all got down and started playing like kids in the snow. That’s when you realise no matter what age if you are Young at Heart, you will enjoy smaller things in life.
From there with great difficulty, I got all of the YAH to get into our Innova and head towards Bombdila. Tucked away in the eastern ranges of the Himalayas, the beautiful town of Bomdila offers everything a nature lover could ask for. Its untouched natural splendour, marvellous landscapes, and panoramic views of the snow-clad mountains make it a photographer’s delight as well. Add to that apple orchard, orchid sanctuaries and several hiking trails, and you have a holiday destination that you can never have enough of.
Over there we reached late at night because we were halting and taking pictures at every possible place. Anyways there was no hurry, after all, we all were friends and knew we are here to enjoy nature.
Our stay in Bomdila was short, as we had to reach Kaziranga which is located in the heart of Assam, this park is one of the last areas in eastern India undisturbed by a human presence. It is inhabited by the world’s largest population of one-horned rhinoceroses, as well as many mammals, including tigers, elephants, panthers and bears, and thousands of birds.
Interestingly while we were about to reach Kaziranga on the way we could see one-horned Rhino, everyone was getting down from their cars to take pictures while the locals were busy renting out binoculars to the tourists. We reached our hotel and hit the bed soon. Because we had to wake up early morning for an elephant safari.
Elephant safari in Kaziranga is the best way to observe the breathtaking view of the mysterious wild jungle, world-famous one-horned Rhinos and numerous variety of flora and fauna. However, people who feel taking Elephant safari is cruelty to animals they have the option of Jeep safari.
We all reached early morning around 5:30 am for our Elephant safari but unfortunately, it started pouring heavily. But our YAH did not want to give up, in spite of the rains they took an umbrella and went on the elephant. That to me was a sign of sheer determination to overcome the odds and make things happen.
I was worried they might fall sick but they were confident and trust me nothing happened to them.
After the elephant safari, we also did the Jeep safari, did not want to leave a single stone unturned. Post that our journey continued to the “Scotland of the East” – Shillong. We spent a few days in Shillong and Cheerapunji, enjoyed each and every bit there. Went and played in Gods garden, explored the sacred forest and did try some old rituals. Spent time at the Khasi village, elephant waterfalls, Shillong peak all were covered.
While driving there we encountered hailstorms but that did not deter us, we went to Bangladesh border, then to the beautiful Dawki, but must say due to the rains we were not able to see the beauty of Dawki in its true sense. But we got to catch the waterfalls, Seven sisters, Nokhilla falls and created some amazing memories.
Our trip was coming to an end and the last day we drove to Guwahati airport, all were quite as if they didn’t want to leave from there. Their heart was happy and sad. Happy that they had such a good time and witnessed nature and its beauty in full glory and sad that they have to go and might not come back again to this place.
Towards the end it was a very emotional moment, everyone had become my uncle and aunties, they were treating me like their kid and was taking care of me. If someone told me earlier that I could have an awesome trip with only senior citizens, I would have never believed them. But now I know age is just a number what matters is to be Young At Heart.